Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Food Costs

Someone else was using the microscope yesterday afternoon, so I went on a quest to decide whether high food costs for healthy food is a legitimate reason why Americans have gained so much weight.

Pen in hand, I entered the local Wegmans and copied down, the price, and number of calories in a long list of items. I mostly chose items I considered reasonably cheap, making sure to get all the famous cheap living items such as rice, beans, macaroni, and ramen noodles. Whenever there were multiple items of one type, I tried to find the cheapest one. Although often I picked the one I would actually buy, which does add a bit of randomness to the data. I then took the price numbers, and calculated how much money it costs to buy 2500 calories worth of that food item. That gives you a rough estimate of how much money you would have to spend each day if your entire diet came from that one food item. This makes it much easier to decide how much you are really spending on food with a particular diet than I have seen anywhere else.

The List:

Item Price for 2500 calories

Sugar, 10lb bag $0.65
White flour, 5lb $0.68
Rice-White 20lb bag $0.69
Corn oil $0.71
Sugar, 5 lb bag $0.73
Whole Wheat Flour 5lb $0.75
Rice-Brown,5lb bag $0.97
Rice- White, 5lb bag $1.09
Canola oil, 1qt $1.07
Wegman's Macaroni and Cheese $1.50
Barley $1.59
Quaker Oatmeal $1.94
Spaghetti $2.02
White Bread $2.07
Peanuts $2.24
Lentils $2.27
Smuckers natural peanut butter $2.37
Top Ramen $2.45
Wheat Berries(bulk) $2.67
Olive oil $2.70
Millet(Bulk) $2.90
Wegman's Chocolate Chips $2.96
Chocolate Ice Cream $2.96
Cheez-it crackers $2.98
Banana $3.04
Wegman's Ginger Ale $3.09
Rainbow Sherbert(1gallon) $3.12
Choclatey rice crisps $3.19
Cream of Wheat $3.20
Raisens $3.38
Chips Ahoy Cookies $3.40
Black Beans(dry) $3.54
Kidney Beans(dry) $3.54
Black Beans(canned) $3.57
Fish Sticks $3.88
Kidney Beans(canned) $3.90
Corn(canned) $4.02
Eggs $4.14
Potato chips, Lays Family size $4.16
Cashews $4.16
Pepsi, 2L $4.34
Wheat Bread $4.45
Whole Wheat Spaghetti $5.19
SPAM $5.53
Fudge Bars $5.60
Goldfish crackers $5.88
Cheddar Cheese $5.95
peas(frozen) $6.36
Sweet Potato $6.41
Russet Patato $7.26
Mini pizza bagels $8.32
Pineapple(canned) $8.65
Popcorn Fish $9.52
Apples, 5lb bag $9.75
Peaches(canned) $10.10
Pears $10.73
Potato, 5lb bag $11.34
Corn on the cob $12.99
Spanish Onion $13.52
Pears(canned) $13.75
Starkist Tuna $13.80
Broccoli(frozen) $14.83
Watermelon $15.59
Bacon $16.47
Cabbage $16.59
Apples, unbagged $17.25
Acorn Squash $22.59
Broccoli $28.65
Diced Tomatoes(canned) $31.14
Cantaloupe $39.76
Bell Peppers $43.64
Brussel Sprouts $43.21
Shrimp(unpeeled, frozen) $46.80
Tomatoes $61.06
Lettice $76.02
Organic Spring Mix $299.50

Several things jump out at me from this list. First, things that are dense in calories, and relatively non-perishable are cheap, things that break one or more of these rules are not. Things like Cabbage, which was only 0.69 cents a pound, initially struck me as cheap. Turns out that on a per calorie measure cabbage was even behind Watermelon, and Bacon! Tomatoes looked fairly cheap at $1.99 a pound. It turns out, they have almost no calories, you would have to eat around 75 tomatoes a day to get 2500 calories! Nuts on the other hand looked really expensive. The cashews were something like eight dollars a pound. Turns out, on a per calorie measure though they really aren't that bad though. Less than five dollars of them will cover your calories for the day.

The cheap items can be split pretty evenly into two groups. Processed junk that lasts forever and can be made from little more than commodity grains(cheez-its, ice cream, macaroni, ramen), and whole grains, nuts, and other non-perishable commodities.

This really leaves a poor shopper with two distinct possible diets. First is the modern American diet. Bring on the cheap processed foods! This diet is about the same price, or cheaper, than any healthy option. It is however far easier to prepare, takes no particular cooking skill, and very little time. Of course it leads to obesity, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and so on.

The second diet is what I would call the third world diet. Just taking items off my list, it wouldn't be in the least bit unhealthy to make 90% of your diet consist of brown rice, peanuts, lentils, kidney beans, black beans, barley, millet, oatmeal, canola oil, whole wheat flour, raisens, bananas, eggs, nuts, and whole wheat bread. If you did so(and the other 10% of your diet wasn't too expensive), you could expect to spend from 2-5 dollars a day on food depending on what type of grain you focused on. If you bought in large quantities, and on sale, I bet you could cut it to close to a dollar a day.

So, there is a diet that is at least as cheap as the American diet, it is a better diet than a huge percentage of the world can afford but not a lot of people choose to eat that way. What is the problem? It is fairly obvious. To to choose that diet, over the American diet would require a lot more time cooking, knowledge of cooking, and knowledge of nutrition. The average poor American probably can't be counted on for any of that.

Also, what is probably the healthiest diet is expensive enough to reasonably consider it to be out of reach for a fairly large number of people. While it is true whole grains, beans, and other similar items should make up a majority of the calories you eat, it is also true that eating large numbers of fresh/frozen/canned vegetables is optimal. Also some fish would probably be a good idea, even the 0.69 cent can of tuna turned out to be quite expensive as a source of calories. When poor people hear nutrition advice it almost certainly is aimed at getting them to eat more of these products. A far more reasonable goal however would be trying to get them to eat less processed foods, and more whole grains. This is more within what they can afford, and would have nearly as much benefit.

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